On the Fox drama series The Following, Ryan Hardy (Kevin Bacon) once again has to turn to Joe Carroll (James Purefoy), now that his mentor Dr. Strauss (Gregg Henry) is out and looking for someone to take Carroll’s place. Cue Theo (Michael Ealy), who has earned a reputation for himself as a ghost and chameleon, and who is about to rival anything Hardy has previously gone up against.
During this interview with press to promote his arrival on The Following Season 3, actor Michael Ealy talked about what made him want to sign on for this role, how daunting it is to play a villain alongside James Purefoy, being the new guy on set, what makes his character a chameleon, the challenges of this role, working with Kevin Bacon, what he looks for in a role, and how hard it is to leave a character like this behind.
Question: What made you want to play a bad guy on The Following, and do you have a preference for playing the good guy or the bad guy?
MICHAEL EALY: For me, it’s about showing range and versatility. When the opportunity to join The Following came up, it was the first or second time I was given the opportunity to actually play a villain. You’re right, I have played a lot of good guys, but it’s a really nice change of pace. I don’t know if I prefer it, so much as I just enjoy being able to go back and forth.
Who are you going to be interacting with?
EALY: I think I work with almost everyone in the show, at some point or another. In the first couple of episodes, Theo is on his own. You really learn more and more about Theo’s character and the background, and some of the loose ends that he has to end.
How daunting was it to find your place among the villains already on the show?
EALY: It was daunting to walk onto the show, knowing that you’re going play a villain where the infamous Joe Carroll, played by James Purefoy, was already a well-established villain. One of the things that I tried to do was steer away from Joe’s rhythm of speech and the clever banter, back and forth. I wanted to make Theo a bit more terrifying and not go down the same path as Joe. I tried to make him more scary.
What was it like to join such a well-established cast?
EALY: There’s always going to be some hesitation in joining a pretty well-established cast because you’re definitely going to feel like the new guy. On this particular show, this crew is so much fun to work with and so amazing that, by day two, I felt like I belonged and I felt welcomed. It was like, “Okay, this is going to be a fun ride,” and it has been. It’s lived up to that hype.
What makes Theo a chameleon?
EALY: Theo has the ability to morph into various identities, both physically and logistically. If he takes on a different identity, he’ll change himself physically. not like a shape-shifter, or anything like that, but with disguises. At one point, he wears contact lenses. He goes into full detail whenever he takes on an identity to kill. I think it’s his passion. And when he does pursue his passion, he tends to morph into another identity, as opposed to killing just as Theo. And in terms of logistics, he is a hacking genius. It makes him much more difficult to track because, physically and logistically, he’s transformed.
How did you find this character?
EALY: Obviously, you look into certain serial killers and you read up on these guys and the narcissism behind them. If anything, I wanted to become somewhat of an anti-serial killer. Unlike Joe, Theo does not seek the glory, the fame or the followers. That’s where I separated myself from most serial killers. Theo does not seek out the glory and the fame. He would rather be left alone and be able to fulfill that blood-lust, under the radar. At the same time, he does possess some of the narcissist qualities that other serial killers do have. But, one of things you’ll see is that he doesn’t necessarily embrace just one particular style or one signature. He has embraced them all, and he doesn’t believe in limiting himself to just one methodology or signature. It’s pretty disturbing, in that way. And at the same time, it’s fascinating because he ends up becoming more of a collective type of serial killer.
What’s been particularly challenging about this role?
EALY: The challenge was to try to understand the character. Previous characters that I’ve played, I’ve always been able to identify with some element, if not most of the elements of the character, not only because they’re good guys, but because of whatever it is that they’re searching for in life. What I found difficult about Theo was that I don’t have a blood lust, I don’t have a desire to kill, and more importantly, based on what I’ve read, and doing research about sociopaths in general, being born this way is not something that can really be figured out or explained. The idea that the difference between me and Theo is just a genetic code is frightening. Technically, I could be Theo, if I just had a different genetic code. I wouldn’t be an actor, I’d just be Theo, and that was frightening to me. But at the same time, it was very alluring and it also made me realize that I’ve got to find something about the character that I identify with. What I found was this theory of wanting to stay underneath the radar. Oftentimes, in my own career, I’ve chosen to stay underneath the radar and protect my family. I do my work and retreat back into my little bubble. That’s harder to do nowadays. So, Theo wanting to not be Joe, not wanting follower and not wanting the attention from the media was my in for Theo.
How was it working with Kevin Bacon, as Ryan Hardy’s nemesis?
EALY: Kevin is an icon in the business, and it’s even more apparent, this season, that his character is so much closer to the villain’s than you think. You think he’s an FBI guy, and he’s going to do the right thing. We were talking about this on set the other day, and I was like, “You know, I think Ryan might have a higher body count than Theo or Joe.” He has. It’s interesting the way the show is set up. Technically, his character has ended more lives than any of the villains on the show. It’s something that nobody pays attention to or thinks about. It’s interesting because he does it as law enforcement, so it’s okay. At the same time, make no mistake, he’s saving lives. But what does that do to a person’s spirit and soul, over time? I think you’re going to see some of that from him, this season. He’s doing some wonderful work with Ryan, and it’s fascinating to watch him live with these demons and the issues of ending life, constantly. How many of those people stick with you? I find it fascinating to think that the line between good and evil is extremely thin, and this show is a great indicator of just how thin that line is.
How do you choose your roles?
EALY: I tend to look for roles that have impact. I paid my dues, early on, where I was just happy to be in the show or movie. At this point in my career, I need to have impact in the story and I need to be focused upon because that’s the only way I can really impact the show. To be able to come into this show and be the new big, bad villain was an impactful role. It was also a role that took me a while, but eventually I was able to find that connection with this character. That’s always the challenge. You should always challenge yourself, as an actor, to find the connection between you and the character, and this one was probably one of the most difficult times I’ve ever had, finding the connection.
How hard is it to detox from doing such a good job at playing a villain?
EALY: That’s an interesting question. It was actually one of my concerns, before taking the role. I wondered how dark I was going to get with this, and what that was going to mean to me, in terms of detoxing when the time was right. That’s one of life’s beautiful lessons, in terms of having a family. They tend to yank you out of whatever you’re in and force you to deal with real life. It wakes you up and you realize that you’re playing pretend. As convincing as it is, I’m playing pretend. A dirty diaper is something that Theo would never, ever deal with. That makes you almost instantly snap out of that. That’s been very helpful, in terms of not staying too dark. And at the same time, this crew is so amazing, but they’re also very used to this dark world, so they have jokes and they keep it light on set. You can’t stay too serious about it all day because we keep it pretty light on set.
The Following airs on Monday nights on Fox.